Sergio Quinzio—A Despairing Faith

by M. Bielawski

My unofficial translation of “Sergio Quinzio – wiara zrozpaczona” (2005), written by Maciej Bielawski, source here


He rejected the Hellenic spirit, he did not appreciate the Church Fathers and scholastics. He considered the works of mystics a hoax. He looked at the efforts of the hierarchs, religious ritualism, and ecclesiastical triumphalism with embarrassment. When he confronted God’s Word with reality, he concluded that God’s promises had not been fulfilled. He wished he could not believe it, but he couldn’t.

Sergio Quinzio was born in 1927 in Alassio, a town in the northwest of Italy, in a region known as Liguria. After a period of “classical” childhood, he entered a period of exploration: he attended lectures in engineering and mathematics, philosophy and literature for a while, but none of these gave him satisfaction. Then, to ensure his material necessities, he joined one of the Italian military formations (Guardia di finanza) and graduated from a military academy. In military schools, he lectured on mechanics, statistics, electronics, radio engineering and legal matters. After seventeen years, he resigned from service and retired for another fourteen years into the solitude of the small town of Isola del Piano, near the Adriatic city of Pesaro, devoting himself to studying the Bible, meditating on the Word and writing. Although he did not consider himself a “professional writer,” he has published about twenty books and numerous articles. Quinzio’s voice, one of a kind, spread in ever wider circles, making him one of the most outstanding figures in Italian intellectual life with a Christian profile. He died in Rome in the spring of 1996.

More or less such a note about Sergio Quinzio, enriched with a list of his publications, could be found in encyclopedias. However, one should go beyond this purely informative scheme and add an aspect of thought.


Shadow of death

Quinzio was shaken out of the state of “normality” forever by the experience of death, which slowly, in a few acts, spread its shadow over him. While still a boy, at the end of World War II, he worked in a hospital, as one of those who buried the dead. He was deeply affected by contact with the wounded, the suffering, with the dead bodies. It was the first act.

The second act began when he moved to Rome as a student, where his father found a job after the war. On his way to the university, he passed Verano cemetery every day, which led him to reflect on the meaning of life and death, and made the teachings in university lecture halls sound empty. His heart was stricken and inconsolable. It was because of this lack of consolation, close to despair and so close to the abyss, that he threw himself into the absurdity of a military career: Was it just as good a place in this world, just as absurd, like any other? The horror of death from his younger days intensified over time as death invaded his life directly.

In 1963, Quinzio married Stefania Barbareschi, thirteen years younger than him. Sergio saw her for the first time in 1945, when she was still a girl. For a while and every now and then they “passed one another” to really meet only in 1958, when Stefania confessed her love for him. Sergio was not immediately ready to accept that gift: he had to work, internally and externally, through his despair, the meanders of existence, the shadows of death, military barracks, and confusion. Eventually, they got married and began a difficult life together: poverty, changes in residence, Sergio’s absences resulting from his employment. In 1966, their daughter Pia was born, and Sergio—then in the rank of captain—was transferred from Turin to Rome. A year later, he resigned and left the army, devoting himself entirely to writing. However, in the spring of the same year, Stefania’s cancer began—a real calvary leading through the corridors of hospitals, the silence of sleepless nights filled with pain and despair. Stefania died at the end of February 1970. Quinzio described the history of this tragic love in a touching and shocking book L’incoronazione (The Crowning, 1971). It is a document unique in the twentieth-century literature, a lyrical description of two people’s love, growing up and waiting for each other, fulfillment and non-fulfillment, union and separation; confessions, meditations, theological reflections, prayers are intertwined with quotations from letters. A seduction of the possibility of full happiness in love and the tragic disappointment resulting from that faith led Quinzio to believe that the promises of redemption were not to bear fruit in the present world—and that was the third act of the shadow of death. With time, it became one of the leading motives in his reflections.


Hope and despair

Quinzio began writing relatively early: he published his first texts in 1952. A year earlier, when he was living in the barracks of the coastal city of Gaeta, depressed by his life situation, he began to write letters to his brother, which Quinzio reviewed, compiled and published in a book a few years later, adding a few other reflections to his correspondence. And so in 1958, in the publishing house of Uga Guandy (born Guandalini) from Parma, in the series “The Problems of Today”, which also published the writings of Maritain, Solovyov and Buonaiuti, Quinzio’s Prophetic Diary (Diario profetico) appeared—in this first booklet, it is already “complete” Quinzio, both in terms of content as well as form.

Quinzio’s writings in that volume are contributory, occasional, made of what the day brings. Sometimes they are longer reflections, essays, sometimes aphorisms, sometimes a commentary on a Bible verse, other times an excerpt from a book or a dialogue with its author, which makes for a kind of an unusual review. The form of such a “journal” remains open and unfinished, and Quinzio explains that it must be so, because the topics he discusses cannot be exhausted and closed into a system. The “prophetic” attribute does not prove that the author considers himself a prophet, but defines himself as a keen observer of history who, perceiving it as a shocking process of decay, nevertheless tries to see with the eye of faith certain signs of God’s consolation and hope offering, moving beyond the despair engulfing him. The main topics covered in the Prophetic Journal are: the experience of living and loving; a world where meaning disappears and God is silent; a church that, though full of contradictions and scandals, still proclaims (almost unaware) the truth; suffering and death; the greatness and contradictions of Scripture; discord between God and the world; rejection of the illusory consolations of mysticism; the enigma of Jesus as a poor messiah and loser; decay of great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity; technique and technology; relationship between Christianity and Judaism; the non-advent of the Kingdom of God and the inadequacy of the world (“The nothingness of the world and the nothingness of the kingdom: an absurdity in which it is impossible to live and, on which, after thinking for a long time, I have come to exhaustion”—p. 155); the inevitable end of Christianity and the Church (“Faith—it has become impossible and necessary. The more impossible it is, the more necessary it becomes”—p. 142.)


The End of the Consolation Religion

In the years 1960-1968, Quinzio collaborated with the “Tempo presente” magazine run by Ignazio Silone and Nicola Chiaromonti (our [Polish] emigrants: G. Herling-Gruziński, J. Czapski, Cz. Miłosz, wrote about them and knew them well). In 1962, Quinzio published  Religion and the Future (Religione e futuro), where in the first pages he wrote about the disappearance of religion: “Sincerity and the criterion of coherence lead to the conclusion that it is impossible to reconcile religion with the modern world; religion is a category of the past and it has naturally drawn its opposite with it as well, atheism, even if the corpses of the old religions still roam the world, even if a movie star converts to Catholicism, even if crowds still gather in St. Peter’s Square.” Reflecting on the relationship between the modern world and religion, Quinzio noticed that the world perfectly explained why religion must disappear, while religion could not provide any satisfactory explanation as to why the world was winning in this clash, sentencing man to loneliness and a sense of being alienated from himself. Wondering what religion was, the Italian thinker came to the conclusion that it was not merely a belief in God or the immortality of the soul, a morality, or an institution. He believed that religion was replaced today by historical awareness, which could be transposed in Christian areas by the theory of “the history of salvation”: a beautiful story with no confirmation in the actuality of living. The official teaching of the Church (after Augustine) assumed that, after Christ, history is a triumphant procession toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God in this world. However, the identification of Christianity with history meant that when history turns out to be a complete contradiction to the Kingdom of God, Christianity is at a loss. History’s relationship with Christianity was a tragic and delusional romance with no future and, consequently, the known form of religion (a new form has not been worked out) began to disappear.

In the book Religion and the Future, Quinzio included 101 reflections and aphorisms with the subtitle “Fragments of Religion”, where he confessed, “My Christianity is different from what is preached from ambos and preached in papal universities, and different from that which shows itself from certain parts of the Gospel.” In this opinion, the thinker initiated a trend in his writing that I would call suspiciousness. He believed that in its embryos Christianity, disappointed with unrealized salvation, introduced a kind of “consolation” (i.e. replaced salvation with consolation), internalizing, spiritualizing and ritualizing Messiah’s message, which can already be seen on the pages of the New Testament. Quinzio wanted to strip himself of all false hopes and temporary consolations and see what was really left. Truth, which appeared before his eyes as a result of this treatment, was terrible and tragic. The epilogue of the book is devoted to the subject of the “kingdom” that can only come after complete destruction, when to the only remaining redeemed survivors will be revealed the face of a poor and defeated God.



No less apocalyptic themes appeared on the pages of Quinzio’s next book, Judgment on History (Giudizio sulla storia—1964) and in Christianity of the Beginnings and Christianity of the End (Cristianesimo dell’inizio e della fine—1967). After the death of his beloved Stefania, Quinzio published the aforementioned Coronation (1971), which he concluded with the following prayer: “Sweet Jesus Christ, our Lord, because of Stefania’s love, finally cause this great miracle that we have been waiting for millennia, and shape the world as delicate as the tenderness with which you filled Stefania’s heart. Amen! Amen! Amen!”

In 1970, Quinzio began to travel with his daughter to a small town (approx. 400 inhabitants) in the province of Pesaro called Isola del Piano. At that time, he made a living on modest earnings from publications and occasional radio work. When in 1973 the owner of a Roman house at which he rented an apartment increased the rent, Quinzio decided to make a change: he sold what he could and bought a small apartment in the center of Isola del Piano. There was a tailor’s shop on the ground floor of the house, above which Quinzio moved with his daughter, mother and aunt.

Shortly thereafter, he received a letter from Anna Giannatiempo, assistant to the respected philosopher Cornelius Fabr (1911-1995), expert in Thomism, existentialism and atheism, a monk and professor at several universities. She wrote the latter after reading The Crowning—this is how epistolary correspondance was established between them, which led to their marriage in 1976. The marriage saddened Cornelius Fabro—he lost his devoted assistant. Quinzio lived with his family in Isola del Piano until 1987. His next books were also written there.


The Christian Midrash

Between 1972 and 1976, Quinzio’s magnum opus was published, namely his Commento on the Bible (Un Commento alla Bibbia). It is an extraordinary and one-of-a-kind work (not only among Quinzio’s books, but also in the wide variety of contemporary biblical commentaries). On the one hand, it could be said that there is nothing more normal than a comment (any and about whatever). We interpret in order to understand —what then isn’t a comment? However, with this work, Quinzio entered the mainstream of the Western tradition for which commentary and the “fragile beauty of interpretation” (J. Starobinski) are very characteristic. On the other hand, Quinzio’s commentary on the Bible is an “abnormal” work, unique and, consequently, isolated into loneliness.

The Commentary on the Bible are four books, in the third edition (1995) compiled into a single bulky volume of more than 800 pages, in which the author commented on “the whole” Bible. This does not mean that he referred to the Bible linguistically, historically, or structurally word for word or verse by verse. Yes, he touched each of the books, but at the same time he did not lose sight of the wholeness and unity of the Book. His commentary is therefore neither a dictionary nor an encyclopedia, but a vision of the Bible, its God, and His Salvation. Sometimes there are many pages of commentary for one verse of a biblical book, sometimes only a short aphorism adds up a few chapters. The Commentary on the Book of Psalms is a beautiful sketch on the words “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me” (the beginning of Psalm 22). However, this does not change the fact that in this essay the author covers the entire psalter.

Quinzio wrote his commentary as if he was on fire while working—he managed to get it all done in just five years. His intention was not to “bring closer” this sacred and important text to the modern reader, he did not want to write in order to make it easier to understand. Quinzio wanted to understand himself and the world and God. It was the Bible that would comment on him, not him on her. For this reason, he was opposed to contemporary exegesis, which, with its critical apparatus, historicism, philosophy and style, and the idea of ​​historical progress, wants to dominate the Bible, and consequently absorbs it, flattens it—and loses it.

Quinzio’s comment is a drama. The author believes that the Bible is incomprehensible and full of contradictions. It cannot be read “for refreshment.” One of the more terrible truths faced by the reader of the Book is the fact that God has been silent for millennia, and man, in the tragedy of his existence, depends only on these pages written in languages already dead. At the same time, however, it is the only lifeline that can save the potential reader from the abyss of despair, while hurting him like a razor that a drowning man seizes. Quinzio believes the drama that can be seen with the naked eye is in reality at the heart of the Bible, a drama of a salvation that is constantly receding and whose promises remain unfulfilled: The wandering through the desert ends with the death of Moses and entry into the “promised land”, which in turn becomes a land of torment, and the chosen people are taken away from it again; The Messiah is crucified, and the disciples’ expectation of His kingdom ends with a cry of disappointment. Behind all this emerges a God who fails, who is not almighty, and whose Messiah is destitute. Quinzio is not content with the spiritual consolations that have spoken for millennia of His presence in the Spirit who animates dead letters, who has shifted into mysticism or ecclesiastical carvings. Man lives in such a world and in the shadow of such a God. And Quinzio himself waits, in his apocalyptic fever, for the final fulfillment of God’s promises, for his delayed second coming.

Of course, critics accused the author of seeing only the Cross and expected the second coming of the Messiah, putting in parentheses perhaps the most important fact of the Resurrection for Christianity. Quinzio developed these themes also in his other publications, such as: The Buried Faith (La fede Sepolta—1978), The Silence of God (Silenzio di Dio—1982); The Cross and Nothingness ( La croce e il nulla—1984), Hope in the Apocalypse (La speranza nell’Apocalissi—1984).


Hebrew Messiah, Greek Christ

In 1991, the Hebrew Roots of the Modern Age appeared (1991)—one of Quinzio’s more mature works. It combines an excellent knowledge of Hebrew thought (from the Bible through Maimonides, Kabbalists, Hasidim to contemporary thinkers such as Buber, Scholem, Rozenzweig, Jankélévitch, Wittgenstein or Levinas), and Christian theology (from the New Testament through the Fathers, Luther and Ignatius Loyola to von Balthasar or Barth) and philosophy (his syntheses connect the ancient Greeks and Heidegger, Spinoza and Hegel). Quinzio argues that in order to understand the present situation of Western civilization, it is necessary to draw not only from its Greco-Roman roots, but also from the underlying Hebrew inspirations. The author analyzes the foundations of Judaism (the concept of time, revelation, history, salvation, messianism, evil, etc.), what has happened to them over the centuries (including Christianity intertwined with Judaism and emerged out of it) and from this perspective he sees the horizon of the present day, in which Jewish influences are not to be overlooked. The Hebrew Roots of Modernity is a bold, original, challenging book—it allows for a deeper and newer look at history, the contemporary situation, Christianity, and Judaism. It is not a textbook that would objectively and exhaustively analyze Jewish thought and its relationship with the present day, but an original and provocative vision. Quinzio says that, as a result of being seduced by Hellenism, the achievements of Christian antiquity and scholasticism distorted the message of the Messiah. He considers it a necessary and positive need to return to Hebrew sources in modern theological reflection. He claims that the spirit “of the older bretheren in Faith” is nearer to Christianity, than the, highlighted until now, “Hellenic spirit of the fathers”. I doubt, however, the possibility of including Quinzio in the so-called Judean movement. How then could his thought be understood?

According to Quinzio, in the mosaic of nations and religions, the Jews are an exception. God’s chosen ones have had and have difficulty accepting this strange God, different from the gods of other nations; it is difficult for them to accept Him, it is difficult for them to part with Him. Hence the tragic split present in them, splitting into thousands of historical phenomena (the idea of ​​exile and wandering, dialectics trying to reconcile contradictions, etc.). The place that Christianity reaches, and on the wings of modern civilization it has reached “everywhere”, Judaism reaches also. All in all, it is a broad historiosophical vision, peculiar, exceptional, lonely. Quinzio does not present the system here, but only—as always thought-provoking—fragments. Could it be at the birth of modernity, which has thrown itself into progress and technology, that Jewish disillusionment with delayed or absent salvation has its place? It would be a strange seed planted in the garden of this associated with Christianity world, a troublesome seed, but impossible to ignore. Quinzio’s proposal at least tackles the problem and provokes reflection.


The God of unfulfilled promises

At the age of sixty-five, Quinzio set himself up for a synthesis: in eight short chapters, and with rare clarity, he wrote The Defeat of God (1992), which may also be considered the “breviary” of his thoughts. The author is furiously inconsolable that his life is troubling him, evil is raging in the world, and God is silent. To console himself, he hunches over the Bible, but the effect is quite the opposite: in the inspired text, he discovers breathtaking content but also contradictions. And when God’s Word confronts reality, he concludes that God’s promises have not been fulfilled. With simplicity and ferocity, he throws himself at the sophisticated edifice of twenty centuries of ecclesiastical and theological tradition, like David on Goliath, believing it to be a pile of nonsense and mistakes. Sometimes he might even like to disbelieve—but he can’t. So he remains in the Christian community, with the Messiah who failed, because, despite the defeat, this is the only point on which to base the “hope in spite of hope”. Quinzio seeks consolation; he awaits a salvation which isn’t approaching.

There is something of Tertullian in him—he rejects the Hellenic spirit, whose influence on Christianity he considers the work of the Antichrist. He does not consider the choice between Athens and Jerusalem. He appreciates neither the Fathers of the Church nor scholastics. He considers the works of mystics to be a hoax and a delusion of anesthetic stoicism. He looks embarrassed at the efforts of the hierarchs, religious ritualism and ecclesiastical triumphalism. He dialogues with modern Christian revisionists (from Luther to Cullman), contemporary Jewish thinkers (from Benjamin to Levinas), historical facts and… the Word of God. Only the language differs from Tertullian: Quinzio’s writing is hardly literary, and even when he tries to make it literary, his sentences are complicated and multi-threaded.

It could be juxtaposed with Emil Cioran, who is also well-known in Poland (among others thanks to his translation and essay writing work by Ireneusz Kania). They were contemporaries, but they never met and did not seem to have read each other. Guido Ceronetti knew both of them and was known by both of them (also translated in Poland). Quinzio and Cioran are tragic characters who live on the margins. Both were fascinated by the “mystery of Judaism”. Cioran, however, wanted in a sense a return to “classical wisdom” and looked towards Buddhism. Quinzio considered this tendency “gnostic” and erroneous. From the “theological” side, Cioran tried, after all, to “not-believe”, he was looking for a “space” in which God would not exist—I think he failed. Quinzio, on the contrary, he tried, in spite of everything, to “believe” and looked for a space in which God and His salvation would touch man—but also in this case one can ask: did he succeed? Both persisted in the intersection of the impossibility that enslaved them. Cioran despairing in spite of hope—Quinzio trying to hope in spite of despair.

In Poland, Sergio Quinzio would be closest to Norwid, but without the latter’s consoling sacramentalism and persistent standing with the eternal truths of Catholicism. There was something of Marian Zdziechowski’s pessimism in him, but without the hopeful vision of the saints “with God in their hearts”, with the power to transform the Church and the cosmos. Finally, Quinzio’s views can be juxtaposed with a certain Manichaeism of Jerzy Nowosielski, but without the consolation that this painter finds in the “miracle of an icon” and in the “otherness of Orthodoxy”. Quinzio would also come to a place near Miłosz, but not sharing his poetic ecstasy and mystical trait of the “eternal moment”. Quinzio looked at the pontificate of John Paul II through the prism of the “shots in St. Peter’s Square” of May 13, 1981, and was less interested in millions of people, which the Pope gathered around himself.

Quinzio thought of the impoverished Messiah, about the God who had failed. Even Jesus was touched by disappointment. The salvation of all created reality has not been completed, another Comforter is “still” needed, and those who believe in Him must complete in their bodies what was missing in the Passion of God’s Son (Col 1:24).

Quinzio also wondered about the mystery of time and evil. Seeing innocent suffering, he guessed the tragedy of God Himself. The only solution for him was the final fight of God with the powers of evil and the closing of the history of the world—but because it was not coming, all he had to do was constantly quote, as if it were his own statement, a fragment of the Apocalypse: “How long, O Lord, holy and true… “(Rev 6:10).


The mystery of injustice

In 1995, Sergio Quinzio published his last book, Mysterium Iniquitatis. Its form could be described as theological fiction—behind literary fiction looms a serious theological problem, treated in an extremely original way, and concerning the issue of the Church. Sergio Quinzio speaks of the last Pope, Peter II, who publishes two encyclicals at the end of his pontificate. The first is called Resurrectio Mortuorumand, it emphasizes the unshakable faith in the Resurrection of the Flesh at the end of time. Quinzio is here, as always, against the evolutionist and optimistic vision of history. He emphasizes, abundantly quoting from the Scripture, that this end and judgment will take place in an atmosphere of apocalyptic terror, the only culmination of which will be the endless life of the saved in the body and in the landscape of the New Earth and New Heaven. In the second encyclical, Mysterium Iniquitatis, the latter Pope, invoking the dogma of infallibility, solemnly, ex cathedra, proclaims the dogma of bankruptcy and defeat of Christianity in the history of the world. Peter II reads the encyclical at night, in the light of the lamp from the inside of the dome of St. Peter, then, with his arms spread like a cross, he throws himself down, dying on the tomb of St. Peter. This tragic act closes the history of Christianity and the Church within the history of this world.

The mystery of Iniquity is more than a spicy tale that would please anti-papists or people disappointed or scandalized by the institutional nature of Christianity and its churches. Quinzio wasn’t that naive. The novel’s envelope is only a literary carrier of a theological treatise. With the help of such means, the writer wanted to say that since (or, if) the church of Christ is His body, it must meet the same fate that befell his Head, that is, must follow Christ in His death, must remain, like Him, crucified in this world. The Church must die within the history of this world in order to rise with her Head on the last day. All in all, then, the historic end and the visible defeat of the Church and Christianity would be an “imitation of Christ” to the extreme.Gaudium et spes or spiritual visions of mystics—the Church has not dared so far, which is why it obscures the truth about Jesus Christ, the defeated messiah, and the truth of His impoverished salvation. Mysterium Iniquitatis transfers to the Church and Christianity all that Quinzio said earlier on the pages of his works. Of course, not everyone liked this vision—but Quinzio didn’t care much about that. Perhaps the only response he expected was the one that could come from the Pope, during whose lifetime he wrote and published his text. Quinzio wanted dialogue and he wanted to hear the words of truth. However, nothing of the sort happened, and a year after the publication of Mysterium Iniquitatis, the author was already dead.


Despair of faith

When asking to know more, at the end of this portrait, about Sergio Quinzio’s faith, it should be said that it was a despairing and torn faith. This is how Quinzio experienced it; he testified to such faith with his life and his writings. He did not believe that it in his case it could be otherwise. I don’t know if the thinker would like to not believe. He certainly believed that he could not believe, although he faithfully experienced all the toil and pain of faith. Sometimes he said it would be easier for him not to believe than to believe, but that was not given to him, he was keenly aware that he had received the gift of faith that made him despair no less, than a possible life without faith.

For Quinzio, it was practically impossible to live because of the suffering and death that were present in this world, and also because of unbelief—hence the first despair. A person embraced by it discovers and experiences deeply the dark abyss of life and reality. However, this despair was for him a necessary the condition: “Despair is the gate leading to faith” (La fede Sepolta, p.134). Despair was not optional for him, but a necessary condition for opening up to faith.

Faith, however, cannot be based on any rational premises. It is not based on any metaphysical evidence for the existence of God. It is not “a matter of metaphysics, but the sphere of God’s mercy” (ibid., p. 130), who alone can comfort and free man from suffering and death. Reason, seeking to eliminate contradictions, cannot resolve the paradox of faith—if it does so, faith ceases to be faith.

According to Quinzio, the drama of today’s man’s faith consists in the fact that, rather than in the Word of God, it is based on the premises of reason, philosophy, science, and technology. However, this is mainly so because God’s promises have not been fulfilled: injustice, suffering, and death continue to reign in this world as if God were not in it, or as if He had forgotten His promises.

Today’s drama of faith also consists in the fact that “For centuries we have become accustomed to treating faith as certainty on the basis of which we have built a whole system of certainties, including our present and future, things of this earth and things of this world” (ibid., p. 130). However, it is precisely this certainty, the confessional pride and the theoretical arrogance of “faith” that make both salvation and faith redundant—they kill them.

All this because Quinzio thinks about faith in a historical perspective and the concrete fulfillment of its promises. The Italian thinker, in his faith, “waits” for the body to stop suffering, for happiness to be possible, for there to be no more death. With the naked eye, it is quite the opposite. Therefore faith, for Quinzio, refers to the time dimension and—unfortunately—only the future. It is based on past facts, on the faith of Abraham, on God’s promises made in the Bible in the past, on the resurrection of Jesus in the past, who, however, delays His return and the fulfillment of His promises: “Our disappointed faith is more difficult, than that of Abraham. We are today like Abraham’s faith. Abraham, whose hand was not held back by the angel (cf. Gen 22: 11-12) and the child of our hope was truly killed”.

Nevertheless, Quinzio believes, believing that “Faith is the leaven of a miracle, the work of God who melts our despair in tears (cf. Mt 26:75)” (ibid., p. 134). Quinzio’s faith is a despairing faith.

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